Pianist Alexander Toradze returns to Skyview Concert Hall this weekend to perform with the Vancouver Symphony in an all-Russian program that includes works by Igor Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Under normal circumstances, this concert would mark a celebration of great music with one of the world’s top-tier keyboard artists. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused some of us to re-evaluate if we want to hear music associated with Russia and the former Soviet Union.
It only takes a second of reflection to acknowledge the contributions that Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and a pantheon of other Russian composers have made to the world of music. Their works have uplifted the human spirit, and the terrible warfare over the past six weeks cannot diminish the positive effect that they have had on culture worldwide.
One of the foremost interpreters of Russian music over the past 50 years has been Toradze. He was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, when it was still part of the Soviet Union and studied at the Moscow Conservatory. In 1977 he won the silver medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. In 1983 he sought asylum and moved to the United States. In 1991 he joined the faculty of Indiana University South Bend where he was the Martin Endowed Professor of Piano until his retirement in 2017.
Toradze has appeared with the leading orchestras of North America and has performed overseas with the BBC Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, La Scala Philharmonic, London Symphony, Mariinsky Orchestra, Orchestre National de France, and many others. He has a number of recordings with the EMI/Angel, Philips, and Pan labels.
When Toradze made his debut with the Vancouver Symphony in 2017, he gave an electrifying rendition of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. This time around he is scheduled to play Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
Stravinsky wrote his concerto in 1922-’23 during a time when he experimented with neoclassicism, which basically sought to return to the order, balance, clarity, economy and emotional restraint that was associated with the Classical era in music. You will not hear any of the Russian folk music that inspired Stravinsky’s earlier period. Instead, you will get lots of quirky, highly syncopated sounds with passages that shift between dissonance and consonance.
Easier on the ears will be Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto. It was written in 1957 as a birthday present for his son Maxim, who premiered the work at his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory. It is a bright and light piece that has been an audience favorite ever since.
The Second Concerto has three movements that alternate between fast, slow and then fast. The first is plucky and daring with melodic lines that will get your goes tapping. The second features lyrical and bittersweet themes. The third gallops along at breakneck speed — all fun and games — with a piano part that is sure to sparkle in Toradze’s hands.
Music director Salvador Brotons, who conducts all of the pieces on the program, will apply his energetic style in Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony. It is called the “Little Russian” because that was an affectionate moniker for Ukraine, and Tchaikovsky used three Ukrainian folk tunes in the piece. He even started on the symphony while in Ukraine for his sister’s wedding on an estate at Kamenka, near Kyiv.
The three folk songs are “Down by Mother Volga,” “Spin, O My Spinner” and “The Crane.” It is the latter that Tchaikovsky develops with delightful variations in the final movement with an emphatically grand ending.
Tchaikovsky returned to Ukraine many times to relax and work on his music. Unfortunately, the house where he stayed in Trostyanets, located in the northeast part of Ukraine, has been shelled and destroyed by Russian troops.
Until 1914, Stravinsky spent most of his summers in the town of Ustilug, Ukraine, which is close to the border with Poland. Shostakovich most likely traveled to Ukraine more than once. His Symphony No. 13 is known as “Babi Yar,” the name of a ravine near Kyiv where in 1941 the Nazis massacred more than 30,000 Jews, Roma and Ukrainians with machine guns.
In spite of the awful madness that is happening in Ukraine, the music of Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky rises far above chaos. Their music serves to unite humanity rather than to divide it. This weekend’s orchestral concert, guided by Brotons, is guaranteed to lift the spirits of those in the concert hall and online.